It took only seconds for the paintings to catch alight but hours for the flames to die into ash.
Oil, after all, had a tendency to burn: it smoked and blistered like skin, layers of paint peeling back upon itself as the pigments—yellow ochre and cadmium red, vermilion and chartreuse and burnt sienna—blackened into char. Works that had once been beautiful were reduced to their basest parts; lit by the flames, they were nothing more than composite pieces of destruction, chemicals and flax and wood, each burning into nothingness as the flames licked ever higher.
From her place in the shadows of the moonless night, Sophie watched a book sail through the air, its cover opening like the wings of a bird. It hung, suspended, above the smoke before arcing into the conflagration, its leaves curling as flames kissed the spine. She looked at the man who had thrown it: he stared, stone-faced, into the bonfire before bending over the wheelbarrow to pick up another accelerant, his fireman’s badge glinting as he fed the flames. Had he been alone, Sophie would have run up, pulled the wheelbarrow from his grasp, saved what she could—but this was state-sanctioned destruction, and twenty other firefighters were feeding the bonfire too, a fifty-foot monster fueled by a generation’s worth of art. Did it bother him, she wondered, watching his sweaty face transform into gargoyle features by the flickering light, to be fueling a fire instead of putting it out? His professional solicitousness suggested that it did not; if he were revolted by the work he was doing, he didn’t let it show.
The stench of burning paint reached Sophie’s throat, and though she retched at the acrid taste, she did not turn away. Like everyone else watching from behind the line of soldiers’ rifles, she wasn’t there out of morbid fascination but for posterity, committing the frightening scene to memory. Thousands of works of art—millions of dollars—destroyed. Complex Cubist paintings, passionate Expressionist works, belligerent Surrealist pastiches and baffling Dadaist collages—all gone in the space of a night. Like so many others watching—curators and connoisseurs and restorers, the artists and authors who’d not yet gone underground—Sophie had been summoned by a whisper network of sympathetic specialists still operating within Germany. Despite her vow to never step foot within the Reich again, she had come to bear witness to Hitler’s destruction of Germany’s cultural heritage.
The last time Sophie had seen the paintings had been in Munich, two years ago, at the opening of the Entartete Kunst exhibition. She’d attended out of professional curiosity, quelling her fears about traveling to Germany in order to see the odious concept in action. Entartete Kunst—Degenerate Art—had been as horrible as she’d anticipated, a master collection of modern art displayed in cruel chaos, jingoistic propaganda condemning the pieces as the work of sick minds, Jewish conspiracies and homosexual perversion. Pulled from public galleries across Germany, each work of art was introduced in deliberately obtuse terms by a prim tour guide, who wrinkled his nose in a moue of distaste as he recited scandalous stories about the artists on display. She should have known then what was in store for each and every work of modern art in Germany’s museums and libraries. She had it on good authority that many of the pieces had been sold to new-world collectors willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that their purchases would swell the coffers of the Nazi regime, but she’d never dreamed the Nazis would destroy what they couldn’t sell—that anything which didn’t reflect Hitler’s twisted ideas about the Reich and its people would be consigned to the flames. The very notion went against the core of Sophie’s being.
The sun had begun to rise, pale in a gray sky, by the time the firemen turned away from the ashes, but Sophie stayed rooted where she was. She turned to the man beside her: his cheeks were streaked with ash, but for a runnel in the grime where tears had fallen. Sophie guessed she was similarly marked, and though she didn’t know him, she walked over and threaded her hand through his. He looked down, surprised by the intrusion—but then, slack-faced, met her gaze. Was he an artist, she wondered, watching his work go up in flames? A gallerist, or a fine-arts restorer like her? Not that it mattered: he was there to witness tragic history in the making.
Sophie squeezed his hand and then released it. She walked away, shoulders rounded against the sudden chill of the morning.
THE PARIS DECEPTION
Available in Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook,
Rave Reviews for Turnbull's Latest Novel
"THE PARIS DECEPTION deceives, intrigues, and enthralls! Two desperate women--one a runaway painter hell-bent on escaping the defunct champagne house of her upbringing, the other a wallflower art restorer at a Parisian museum--cook up an audacious scheme as the Nazis take over France: smuggle "degenerate" modern art destined for a bonfire out of the city, and substitute forgeries in its place. Bryn Turnbull's best book yet!"
New York Times bestselling author of The Rose Code
and The Diamond Eye